Tchotchkes, Geegaws and Gadgets: What I Learned From the Toy Industry

I have to confess . . . I love tchotchkes, geegaws and gadgets. Sometimes an object’s purpose is purely to delight the owner. But objects that simplify tasks or are meaningful, even in the smallest way, become inextricably linked with our behaviors. Who can imagine life now without smartphones?

Unlike tchotchkes or geegaws, gadgets are forever tied to technology. Merriam-Webster defines a gadget as “an often small mechanical or electronic device with a practical use but often thought of as a novelty.” Novelties often do not survive trend shifts, but those that do can transform industries and drive change. Technology isn’t just about gadgets; it’s what those gadgets ultimately mean in our lives.

Go back in time with me to 1995, before video games dominated the marketplace. I’m 10 years old and my Dad works in the toy industry. His office is filled with samples from toy manufacturers the world over, but adults are the only ones allowed to touch them. It’s the only toy room in the world where there are NO KIDS ALLOWED.

However, this Saturday is life changing. Dad wants to know what I think about the latest toy from China. He leads me to a tube TV set up on a table with a ball and bat next to it. Dad turns on the TV, and a baseball game appears on the screen.

Dad hands me the bat while he holds the ball, both with wires connecting to a box next to the TV. Nolan Ryan’s on the mound, and suddenly I’m the batter in the box. Dad says, “Are you ready?” and throws the first pitch—yes, throws!—and I swing the bat in an attempt to hit the ball on screen. It’s a swing and a miss; my timing wasn’t quite right, but I’m hooked.

That story about my first modified virtual reality experience would forever seal my love of technology. Until that moment, no technology offered an experience I couldn’t get in real life, but getting to bat against Nolan Ryan (aka Dad) was empowering and thrilling.

While that game was considered a novelty, it demonstrated how technology can make a direct impact on performance. (My batting average improved, as did my hand-eye coordination!) That kind of technology levels the playing field for people worldwide. In fact, many pro sports teams now use VR to take an athlete’s performance to the next level. I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing Olympic athletes train using VR in the near future.

Technology is limited only by the human imagination. Many companies have found the human element of VR and are using its technology to transform lives. For example, some hospitals are implementing a VR simulator program to train physicians and nurses on complicated surgeries and other procedures that are rare and life threatening—with impressive results. In an interview with Fortune.com, Dr. Narendra Kini, CEO at Miami Children’s Health System, claims that “the retention level a year after a VR training session can be as much as 80%, compared to 20% retention after a week with traditional training.” VR training—like hands-on training—offers an experiential environment. Users aren’t just passively learning theories or techniques; they’re “creating memories,” according to Kini, of procedures they’ve never done— without having to wait for a real life-and-death experience to learn from.

Education has similarly been impacted by the gadget-to-mainstream evolution. My family was also involved in an educational tech company called Leap Frog. In their early days, they developed a gadget called the Phonics Desk that helped children learn to read at their own speed by utilizing an interactive and engaging technology powered by a Texas Instruments chip. Leap Frog introduced its first manufactured product in 1995 to some skepticism about how successful it would be at retail. However, by humanizing the product’s story, it was widely adopted by educators and parents alike, revolutionized how children learn to read, and was ultimately awarded the 2011 Toy of the Year Award.

Technology is more than just gadgets. It has the power to change lives, but only when it’s understood and accompanied by a greater purpose. With a little bit of humanization, the delightful gadgets of yesterday can become the technologies we rely on today.

For more on how new technology products can outlast their novelty and become major players, read Is Meerkat the Next Twitter? Lessons from a SXSW Launch.